Margaret Atwood,
Alias Grace
(Nan A. Tales/Doubleday, 1996)

Grace Marks was either a seductive 16-year-old murderess or an innocent victim of circumstance and conspiracy. She doesn't remember.

Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace unravels the multitude of mysteries surrounding this provocative young servant and the double murder of her employer and his mistress in 1843. The reality of Grace and her crime are captured by the interspersed news clippings and other tidbits of the time period, such as the excerpt from the Kingston Penitentiary punishment book of lashings per infraction and the Toronto Mirror report of the hanging of Grace's alleged accomplice.

With two primary voices, Grace and Dr. Simon Jordan, the psychiatrist interviewing her, the story is filtered twice, giving it a surreal quality and questioning the reliability of the narration. Dr. Jordan is obviously smitten with Grace, a demure 24-year-old prisoner and gifted seamstress in the warden's residence, when they meet. He's also financially indebted to the group attempting to prove her innocence.

Alias Grace ponders the flimsy and oft-corrupted lines between truth and deception, sanity and irrationality, servant and master. Grace's flashbacks begin with her childhood crossing from Ireland to Canada and her career as a housemaid beginning at age 12. Atwood shows generosity and abuse by the upper class, often within the same household. At Grace's final position, the social class divisions blur more as the housekeeper Nancy assumes the role of lady of the house and in the bed of her employer Thomas Kinnear. Grace and stable hand James McDermott complete a convoluted love quadrangle in the household that results in two dead and two convicted of murder in a sensational trial.

Dr. Jordan and the supporting cast of characters vie for each other's attention and affection, while Grace recounts the horrendous treatment of mental asylum inmates and penitentiary prisoners. Especially intriguing from her earlier life story are the peddler Jeremiah and Grace's friend Mary Whitney, whose name she used while on the run with McDermott.

The research into Grace, her trial and her life as a prisoner is extensive and impressive. The voices of the narration are crisp and delightfully contradictory at times. Alias Grace is an enigma of history embroidered into a scintillating and challenging tale.

- Rambles
written by Julie Bowerman
published 17 January 2004

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